Zardari returns to flood-stricken Pakistan to face mounting criticism

President accused of failing to respond to country's worst-ever natural disaster as rising waters continue to cause devastation

President Asif Ali Zardari finally returned to his ravaged country to face a barrage of criticism while thousands of people were evacuated from a major city in Pakistan's heartland as flood waters continued to rise.

The country's leader, under fire for failing to cancel an overseas trip while more than 14 million of his countrymen struggled to deal with the devastating waters, flew into Karachi and was due to return to the capital, Islamabad, later today.

There he will face renewed criticism over his failure seemingly to grasp the scale of the crisis – Pakistan's worst-ever natural disaster.

It is from this saturated heartland that Mr Zardari and the civilian authorities face the most intense criticism for failing to do more. Yesterday, thousands of people fled from the city of Muzaffargarh in Punjab province after officials issued flood warnings as the swollen Chenab river continued to rise.

"It's really bad, horrendous," Rashid Javed, a spokesman for the charity Plan International, whose partners are working to help people in the Muzaffargarh area, told The Independent. "In addition to all the water from the north-west, we have had three days of torrential rain. Most of the camps that have been set up for people have been moved to higher ground."

Reports said the usually busy city of 250,000 people, located in the breadbasket of the nation, was yesterday largely deserted – large numbers left after warnings were issued the previous evening.

A number of men stayed behind to guard homes and businesses. "There is no doubt that our city is almost empty now," Mohammed Saleem, a shop owner who sent his wife and children to Multan, told the Associated Press.

The city's hospital said it was suffering from staff shortages because so many doctors and other workers had decided to leave before floods struck, and workmen had placed sandbags around the facility in anticipation of damage. While it was still uncertain last night whether the rising waters would engulf the town, people said they were not taking any chances.

Almost two weeks after the worst floods in more than 80 years started to sweep through north-west Pakistan, there appears little let-up. While the waters have receded in some places, elsewhere they have continued to rise. Several UN bodies have admitted the scale of the disaster has made it difficult to respond adequately, not just for the government and the armed forces, but for aid groups as well.

"Our staff in Pakistan say the situation is among the most difficult they have faced. Thousands of villages and towns in low-lying areas have not seen flooding on this scale in generations," said a spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

"[The government] puts the number of homes destroyed or damaged at more than 300,000, with more than 14,000 cattle having perished and 2.6 million acres of crop-land under water. So far, some 1,600 people have been killed, but many millions of Pakistanis and Afghan refugees have been affected."

Stephane Lobjois, of the charity Handicap International, said rescuers were travelling to disabled people's homes by foot to deliver emergency supplies. "Not even donkeys can reach – only men," he said. The UN has said the aid response needed to be scaled up "massively" and that it was working on a response plan that would require hundreds of millions of dollars in international assistance.

A spokeswoman for Mr Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) said one of his first tasks was to meet the chief ministers of the provinces to draw up a rehabilitation programme.

Yet in Karachi, Mr Zardari may have been distracted as the fallout from his Europe visit sparked a confrontation between the PPP and Geo News, the television news channel. Hundreds of PPP supporters gathered outside Geo's headquarters in the city, torching newspapers and tyres, chanting angry slogans and hurling stones and shoes.

The clash stemmed from the party's outrage over coverage of a protestor's attempt to strike Mr Zardari with his shoes at a rally in Birmingham. While the shoes missed, the mere attempt set off blanket coverage, with Geo and other channels drawing wry comparisons with former US President George Bush's narrow escape in Baghdad.

The PPP responded with fury and Geo's broadcasts have been shut off in Karachi.

Media view: 'Duration of the tour highlighted his insensitivity'

The insensitivity to the mounting suffering at home was thrown into sharper relief by the long duration of Mr Zardari's tour. Even as swelling rivers pushed the number of people affected by the calamity to several million, the president carried on with a visit that had no urgent purpose.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi in 'The News'

Surely the situation demanded Mr Zardari's presence in the country. True, there is little he could personally have done to improve things. But just as Bush and Obama learnt, it is the impression of being in charge that is important. And while it might have diverted important helicopter capacity, a visit to the flood-affected areas by the president might have cheered up displaced families, while encouraging those engaged in relief work.

Irfan Husain, 'Dawn'

To say Mr Zardari's visit to Britain was controversial would be putting it mildly. He was vilified by both the national and international media and to add insult to injury, the shoe-throwing incident in Birmingham served as the icing on the cake.

Editorial, 'Daily Times'

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